Whenever I see a game described as a platformer, I instantly dislike it. To me, platformers mean pixel-perfect jumps and races against the clock. However, if you call Protonaut a platformer I will be forced to change my mind, because I love it.
Created by Andy Moore and Greg Wohlwend, Protonaut is best described as a platform physics puzzler: a platformer covered in a velvety layer of physics, served with a generous dosage of puzzler. It is like Armadillo Run, except you are the armadillo. Or perhaps it more resembles N, but with dynamic, physics-driven levels. You could even argue it is a bit like Fantastic Contraption—if you added a small man inside each design. Or maybe even resembling The Tall Stump with its projectile shooting, platform jumping, puzzle solving fun. However, none of these crossovers quite adequately describe Protonaut.
The premise of the game is fairly simple: you are a small character (presumably the Protonaut), tasked with collecting all of the gaseous elements in each level. To do this, you have the standard techniques of running ([left] and [right] arrow keys), jumping (the [Z] key), as well as firing a small projectile (the [X] key, with the [up] and [down] arrow keys to aim). Also in your arsenal are the wall-jump and the wall-hop, which allow you to explore places that would otherwise be out of reach. With these 5 meager techniques, you will soon be gathering Oxygens, shooting down Nitrogens, and jumping up for Hydrogens.
Interestingly, there are no enemies in Protonaut. To die, you must either fall off an edge, be crushed, or run into the unstable Nitrogen atom. As a consequence of this enemy-less terrain, the level design relies on exploration and puzzles to force you to think. Sometimes the levels are easy 'collect the elements in the right order' type of puzzles, while others will lead you on flights that will take you where no other Protonaut has gone before.*
(*In reality, such flights may actually take you to places where other Protonauts have already been.)
Analysis: The gameplay of Protonaut is made of solid fun. There are few pixel-perfect jumps, but most levels rely on your creativity to make it through the game. What has truly surprised me, though, is the diversity within the levels. I was not expecting anything different from the normal fare of platformers, but because the levels are dynamic, the challenges are extremely varied. While one level has you running away from an Indiana Jones style boulder, another level flings you from a catapult. This variety, above all else, has had me hooked on this game for a quite a while.
Another place where Protonaut truly shines is in its execution. The game looks and feels polished, thanks to the surprisingly catchy music and Wohlwend's stunningly beautiful Soviet-inspired art. As you jump around, for example, small specs float by, simulating the feeling of looking through a microscope. Another great addition to the game is the ability to save replays. Much like Fantastic Contraption or Incredibots, once you make an account, you can save your replays and send them to your friends (and post them here in the comments!). Although such a feature would usually be useless in a platformer, the addition of physics-driven dynamic levels allow for some really interesting stunts.
If you find the game as thoroughly engaging as I did, you can spend ten dollars and get a variety of extras. First, you will get the ability to play other players' levels. Similarly, you can save levels that you have made from the game's fully featured level-editor, complete with permission controls on who can edit and play each level you create. There is also a level browser, which lets you browse other user's levels in a variety of ways (by rating, date, or Moore's own algorithm) to determine levels that you haven't yet played. As there are no ads on the site, these extras seem to be the primary way to support the two creators.
In conclusion, why are you still reading this review? There are elements to collect and Nitrogens to explode—get going!